Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ya see, newspapers still have value

How else would we learn of the desire by Trekkies to "get their Kirk on," as The New York Times reports? (Hat tip: The Corner.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot (as it were)

Yesterday came reports that the Obama administration might force wounded veterans to get treatment under their own private health insurance. Now comes news that the administration has suspended the program that allows commercial pilots to safely carry firearms aboard planes.

The Federal Flight Deck Officers program was instituted after 9/11 to enable formal training of pilots in firearms use as a way to protect passengers in case a genuine security risk (not just a terrorist threat) emerges when a plane is aloft. And yet a Washington Times editorial says the White House has secretly diverted $2 million that was used to train flight officers and instead will pay bureaucrats to harass, er, "conduct field inspections" of pilots who have been certified to carry.

Since Mr. Obama's election, pilots have told us that the approval process for letting pilots carry guns on planes slowed significantly. Last week the problem went from bad to worse. Federal Flight Deck Officers - the pilots who have been approved to carry guns - indicate that the approval process has stalled out.

Pilots cannot openly speak about the changing policies for fear of retaliation from the Transportation Security Administration. Pilots who act in any way that causes a “loss of confidence” in the armed pilot program risk criminal prosecution as well as their removal from the program. Despite these threats, pilots in the Federal Flight Deck Officers program have raised real concerns in multiple interviews.

Unless you're openly hostile to personal firearms ownership, there's no explanation for this switch. And don't doubt for a second that Second Amendment groups are already lining up candidates to run against any lawmaker who defends this lunacy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Obama's "catastrophic health care" blunder?

To provide some spending leeway to expand federal health-care subsidies, the Obama administration is reportedly considering a plan that would require wounded U.S. veterans to pay for their service-related injuries using private health insurance. (Hat tip: NRO's Campaign Spot.)

Unless you're in favor of privatizing the armed forces, the idea is not only manifestly unfair -- the nation's taxpayers have an obligation to pay for the treatment of those injured defending the country -- but it's also absolutely nuts politically. It reinforces the most damning indictments of the Democratic Party's left -- primarily that they hate the military.

Even if this idea founders, Obama will have a tough time living it down. Veterans groups have the memories of elephants, and they do not accept slights (real or imagined) gracefully.

While I was at the Rocky Mountain News, we supported a proposal by the Veterans Administration to share a new hospital with the University of Colorado rather than build a stand-alone facility. The plan would have saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, because the complex would not have to duplicate some expensive diagnostic equipment (not just the machine that goes "ping!"). It would have also arguably offered better medical care to vets.

Didn't happen. Even though Congress has approved only half the money needed to build a separate hospital at the site, it appears that a stand-alone facility is inevitable.

Looks like Obama has not followed the history of Chicago pols very closely. Two decades ago, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski's political career began to unravel when he pushed a tax increase on high-income senior citizens to pay for catastrophic coverage under Medicare.

Rosty was seemingly bulletproof before he supported means-testing. But senior groups didn't forget, and Congress actually repealed the tax increase. Moreover, Rosty showed he was vulnerable, and his opponents later uncovered the House Post Office scandal, which led to Rosty's defeat in the 1994 GOP landslide.

I'm not saying this suggestion (it's not even a policy) will be Obama's undoing, but the longer he waits to publicly drive a stake through its heart, the more trouble it'll cause him.

Another reason to leave Colorado

The state constitution is whatever the courts say it is.

That's the upshot of yesterday's 6-1 ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court upholding a tax-rate freeze championed by Gov. Bill Ritter and passed by the 2007 legislature.

For those of you outside Colorado, here's this convoluted story in a nutshell.

The 1992 constitutional amendment known as the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights requires, among other things, a vote of the people before approving "any new tax, tax rate increase, mill levy [property tax hike] above that for the prior year -- or a tax policy change directly causing a net revenue gain to any district."

Another provision of TABOR -- the one that drives liberals really crazy -- requires the government to issue tax refunds if revenues grow faster than inflation plus population growth. Residents of individual school districts can elect to forgo reductions in property tax rates that would be mandated by TABOR, again by popular vote. Since 1995, 174 of the 178 school districts in Colorado have voted to "de-Bruce," a process named after TABOR author Douglas Bruce.

But four haven't; in fact, their residents had voted no in elections to de-Bruce. But when Ritter and the legislature moved in 2007 to freeze mill-levy rates across the state, suspending scheduled tax-rate reductions, that move delivered an extra $117 million to state coffers immediately, and over time would bring many million more to the state in higher taxes that no voters approved. Moreover, as the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara pointed out last year, that $117 million didn't go to fund education at the local level; it was diverted to the state's General Fund to close a short-term budget deficit.

The Mesa County Commission, the Independence Institute and several other taxpayer groups filed suit in court, calling the tax freeze an unconstitutional tax policy change that lacked voter approval -- and they won in Denver District Court. (Trying to track down that opinion, which seems to have disappeared from the Web.)

But the state Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling, saying the legislation was not a tax policy change but instead an extension of the de-Brucing election most of the other districts had approved.

My former boss Vincent Carroll, now at The Denver Post, nails it:

The audacity of the court’s claim is breathtaking. There is not one voter in this state who consciously approved the freezing of mill levy rates yesterday, today, and some day in the future when residential property values rebound and start to accelerate skyward again — not one who heard that issue debated at a local election. To the contrary, many were explicitly told their votes would have no impact on future taxes.

Voters merely agreed to forgo any surplus collected by their districts under the existing system, which did not foresee frozen rates.

Critics of the court say a gang of unelected judges are rewriting the state constitution because they disagree with the policy preferences of voters. (Where have we heard that before?)

All I know is, as someone who values separation of powers and government that's played by the rules, it looks like a good time to leave Colorado.

UPDATE: The District Court opinion, by Judge Christine Habas, is available through the Attorney General's Web site. Colorado AG John Suthers thought the law was unconstitutional, btw, and issued his own opinion about it in 2007 here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

From the ashes

A new news site is born.

Thirty former Rocky Mountain News staffers announced the launch of, a subscription-based online publication. Their goal: Line up 50,000 subscribers by April 23, what would have been the Rocky's 150th anniversary, and go live May 4. At $7 a month ($5 if you sign up for a year), initial subscriptions will be roughly half the cost of The Denver Post,

A lot of familiar names (and decades of institutional/intellectual capital) if you're a Rocky reader: Sam Adams, Mark Brown, Mary Chandler, Kevin Flynn, Tillie Fong, Gary Massaro, David Milstead, Bill Scanlon, Marc Shulgold,
Ed Stein and Mark Wolf. Along with some not-as-familiar ones, mainly from the paper's fine stable of editors. Gotta keep folks on deadline, right?

Best of luck to 'em. There'll be no shortage of news for the Timesters to provide.

UPDATE: Mike Roberts at Westword covers the press conference that kicked off the project.

As the earlier announcement mentioned, some outside capital is pledged to make the site commercially viable if enough readers pony up some dough before the April 23 deadline. The question is -- will readers pay a little to get some of what the Rocky provided? (No comics, no puzzles, no recurring features, no comprehensive coverage of sports, etc.) And do so knowing that they won't have a bundle of newsprint tossed on their doorsteps daily?

This could be a

Smart people did not repeal the business cycle

In The Atlantic, my friend and former boss Virginia Postrel explains why super-intelligent policy-makers falsely believed that had tamed the ups and downs of the economy. And why their miscalculations may keep us in a funk for longer than is necessary.

Congratulating policy makers for “the virtual disappearance of the business cycle” oversteps the evidence and encourages the hubris that fostered the current crisis and could make recovery more difficult. The conventional explanation for the Great Moderation gives too much credit to easily identifiable economic policy makers—“I feel the contribution of good policy cannot be overstated,” said [Christina] Romer — and too little to all those anonymous managers and workers whose everyday actions get summarized in the aggregate statistics that Fed economists watch so closely.

Read the whole thing.